So what else makes us neglect our future selves? Our vulnerability to instant gratification. When a tempting object is staring right at you, resistance often feels futile because the reward system in our brain reacts so strongly to visible rewards. Why?
Because visible rewards make us overestimate the benefits of instant gratification and underestimate the value of exerting self-control. This leads us to make decisions that our future selves later regret.
But temptation becomes weaker if you then create some distance between you and the object – for example, by making it less visible or more difficult to reach.
Here’s a challenge: for the next five minutes don’t think about white bears. Can you do it? Most people fail in this task. Even though we never usually think about white bears, if you actively try to not think about them, it becomes almost impossible to stop.
The same is true for your cravings: though suppression might seem to work at first, it actually makes them worse. This was shown by one researcher who believed that thought suppression compels us to do the very thing we are trying to not think about.
To test his hypothesis, he invited women for a tasting test of two similar chocolates. Before bringing in the candy, he asked the participants to think out loud for five minutes. One group was instructed to suppress any thoughts about chocolate, while the other participants were free to think about whatever they wanted.
And as expected, the group that received the instructions not to think about chocolate reported fewer thoughts about chocolate – but also ate twice as much of the candy.
This is also the reason why most diets simply don’t work. The more dieters try and resist a certain food, the more their mind becomes preoccupied by it.
So how can you overcome cravings without pushing them away? When you’re on a diet, don’t deprive yourself of your favorite foods because it will only increase your cravings.
Instead of deciding “you won’t” eat fast food or cupcakes, devote your energy to the idea that “you will” eat more healthy food. A decline in unhealthy food will automatically follow and you’ll have a much easier time sticking to such a positive challenge.
Another way to overcome cravings is by merely observing them: When the unwanted urge appears, allow yourself to notice it. Observe your breath and what you are feeling. Then imagine the urge is a cloud which dissolves and passes on by.
This technique, inspired by mindfulness traditions, is especially useful if you want to rid yourself of an unpleasant habit like smoking.
Have you ever noticed that you behave and think differently depending on who you’re with? In fact, who we interact with influences our beliefs, goals and actions to a remarkable degree. And even characteristics like a strong or weak willpower can be “picked up” from our social context.
For example, studies showed that if we observe other people acting impulsively, we are more likely to be impulsive ourselves and neglect our long-term goals for a pleasurable moment. What’s more, the more we like the person observed, the stronger this effect is, and the more willpower we lose.
Luckily this mechanism can also be harnessed for good, for example, with dieting: research shows that having a close friend or family member who recently lost a lot of weight increases your chances of also losing weight.
So how can you take advantage of this?
Ask yourself, do you know someone you admire for their willpower? Try thinking about them more often – because research shows that just thinking about someone with good self-control increases your own willpower.
Another way of harnessing the force of willpower contagion is to get friends and family involved with your willpower challenges.
The power of this approach was shown in the weight-loss intervention at the University of Pittsburgh that requires people to enroll with a friend or family member. The participants were then instructed to support each other in pursuing their goals – for example, by writing encouraging messages or sharing a healthy meal from time to time.
The results were impressive: 66 percent of the participants had maintained their weight loss when checked on ten months later. In contrast, the success rate of the control group – the participants that did not join with a partner – was only 24 percent.
So if you and your loved ones share a willpower challenge, make it a group project!
By learning how to concentrate on our long-term goals, maintain our willpower supply and train our willpower muscle, we can gain greater control over our bad habits – and live more fulfilling lives.
Let’s try to be aware of ourselves. So try these two techniques!
For at least one day, try to observe your decisions very closely. Were there situations you could have avoided to better maintain your willpower supply? Were there times when you gave in to an impulse because you lost sight of your long-term goal? Pinpoint your weaknesses and visualize yourself overcoming them.
Try the five-minute brain training meditation: focus on your breath using the words “inhale” and “exhale” in your mind, and when your mind wanders, just notice it and bring it back to your breath.
Check out my related post: How to make whining stop?